Wally Pfister is a cinematographer. He’s that guy that sets up all the lights and does all the filming. He’s got quite the impressive resume, including: “Memento,” “Moneyball,” “Dark Knight,” “Dark Knight Rises,” and he’s most recently won an Academy Award for his work on “Inception.” I found out he actually filmed a great majority of it with a hand-held.
Thanks to a grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he got out of Hollywood for a few days to lead some screenings in Sarasota. And his parents, locals Pat and Wally Pfister, were probably thrilled to have a visit from their son.
Pfister is a good buddy of Director Christopher Nolan and the duo has been working together for 13 years. They are both “old-school” film guys who’re known for staying true to film rather than digital. He’s also pretty funny — he answered a phone call from his wife during the screening of “Inception,” and even pointed out one of his errors.
MG: I know you could probably talk about this next question for hours. But in a nutshell, why is it important for you to shoot photo chemically rather than digitally?
WP: In a nutshell, right now. Film and shooting photo chemically is a better image-capture system than anything digital out there right now. And I know that’s changing, but I’ve always felt that until there’s a capture medium that is able to surpass the quality of film that we want to hold on to our film for as long as we can and keep Kodak alive and running, because there’s something really spectacular about the image on a film negative.
MG: Is it the final result you are referring to or is it the reliability?
WP: Reliability is definitely part of it. It’s a very simple mechanical process to expose film, and we’ve been doing it for 100 years. But also, the resolution of film (is better). When they talk about these digital cameras and they brag about them being 4K or 5K film, the resolution of anamorphic film is between 8K and 12K, so just the simple technical aspect of the resolution of film is higher quality than any digital capture medium. So if I think an audience is paying upwards of $15 to see a movie, I think that we as artists and technicians owe it to that audience to give them the best image possible. And that’s why Chris Nolan and I feel strongly about shooting on film.
MG: What about still photography? Do you shoot any stills?
WP: Yeah, I do a bit.
MG: Are you a sticker for stills, too? Do you develop in a darkroom?
WP: I don’t, no. I have to say, I’ve still gone digital. That’s where the convenience factor was far too important. But I don’t do my stills professionally that’s really just for you know, location scouting for the film and family pictures. I’m not asking anyone to pay large sums for my stills, (he laughs here).
MG: What percentage of your shots are planned v. the small part that you “wing”?
WP: You really have to plan when you’re doing a large budget picture. You really have to have a game plan, and have it all laid out and sort of decided, but I think that we’ve always wanted to keep a certain level of spontaneity. And you still can’t completely decide how you’re going to film a scene until you see actors rehearse it. Until you have some idea of what’s going to happen, you know, and leave something up to spontaneity of performers before you lock into stone how you’re going to photograph it.
MG: What’s your favorite part of the cinematography process?
WP: I think really, still, I love being on set and filming. And I love, you know, looking through the camera, and looking at the light and knowing we got it right and feeling that we did what’s appropriate for that scene and that shot and being able to have a comfortable environment and knowing that we shot some scene that’s really strong, important and that we got it right. Overall, the feeling that you got it right after shooting — there’s no greater feeling than that.
MG: What’s the most tedious or taxing part of your work?
WP: Sitting in traffic, going home at night. There’s nothing worse then shooting a long and successful day, and then sitting in traffic and just wanting to get home and be back with my family, so I have to say everything around the set I really enjoy – it’s inconveniences.
MG: I notice watching your films, that a lot of them are pretty gritty and a little bit dark. What inspires this? Is there anything you can point to growing up?
WP: That’s interesting. I did love dark movies when I was growing up. I definitely liked film noir movies, I definitely responded more to those. I was a huge fan of the kind of police movies like, Sidney Lumet, “Prince of the City” — It’s a wonderful movie and it was shot by a wonderful Cinematographer, Andrzej Bartkowiak who became a director, and shot a lot of Lumet pictures…And I love the work of another cinematographer Gordon Willis, and watching “The Godfather.” And to me, those movies were dark, and Willis was considered the Prince of Darkness among cinematographers. So really, seeing what cinematographers were able to do on movies like “The Godfather,” the “The Godfather: Part II” and “Apocalypse Now,” really with that mood of darkness is what attracted me to want to do that kind of work and to lighten that fashion and chose those types of films. And you know, when I’m flying on an airplane I watch comedies, but I would probably never find myself filming a comedy. I think “Moneyball” is as close as I’ll ever get to a comedy.
MG: I know you have a background in documentary-style filming; do you think you’ll ever get back into that?
WP: I think if I have a story to tell that I’d consider doing it. There are ideas I’ve had for documentaries that I’d like to do.
MG: Any you want to share?
WP: I think mostly Rock ‘n’ Roll, because I love music as well. And I’ve had ideas of doing documentaries about musicians that are not very well known and ideas. I love watching music documentaries, I doubt it’ll ever happen but it really would be a fun thing to do.
MG: Well I’d watch it. Talk o me about your relationship with Christopher Nolan. Where did you two meet and how has your relationship developed working on all these films?
WP: We first met at Sundance in 1998 and he was there with his film, “Following,” and I was there with a film I shot called, “The Highland.” And it was a year later and he called me up to meet with him for “Memento.” And as I like to say, his first five choices weren’t available, so I was fortunate enough to get “Memento.” So that really set off my career, and I think Chris and I got along really well, immediately. And I learned a lot from him, and you know, even though I’d been in the business a lot longer than him, I realized there’s an extraordinary film maker sitting across from me and giving me my direction, and our relationship continued for a solid 13 years since that time. But yeah, we’ve been working together now for 13 years.
MG: In keeping with Halloween spirit, what’s your favorite horror flick?
WP: Oh that’s funny, I think “A Nightmare on Elm Street” was amazing. I think Wes Craven managed to bring an incredible level of artistry into the slasher-horror movie. But I also love that one with Nicole Kidman, “The Others,” That is a great horror film.
MG: I know you’re getting into directing, on IMDB it’s called “The Untitled Wally Pfister Project,” can you tell me about any of these plans?
WP: Well, there’s not really more to say except, and hence the untitled, it’s supposed to be under wraps right now. But what I have said, is that it’s a present-day science fiction film.
MG: And what can people expect form your directing compared to Christopher Nolan’s?
WP: Compared to Christopher Nolan, they’ll be really disappointed. I’m going to do my best. I’m going to do my best. And you can print this, I am certain it will be a far cry from the master.
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